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Teeth of the Dog

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Thomas, a renowned American anthropologist, his much younger wife Helene, and Finster, a young, culturally shipwrecked AMR (American mercantile riffraff), as he's known locally, enact a tense personal drama of love and tragedy against the much larger historical drama of the Melanesian island of Vanduu, a steaming crucible where East and West, fundamentalist piety and free market fire, decay and sterility augur the future of the world. Helene has lured Thomas to Vanduu in the desperate hope that its tropical ...
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1999 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 224 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade.

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Overview

Thomas, a renowned American anthropologist, his much younger wife Helene, and Finster, a young, culturally shipwrecked AMR (American mercantile riffraff), as he's known locally, enact a tense personal drama of love and tragedy against the much larger historical drama of the Melanesian island of Vanduu, a steaming crucible where East and West, fundamentalist piety and free market fire, decay and sterility augur the future of the world. Helene has lured Thomas to Vanduu in the desperate hope that its tropical splendor can miraculously heal the fracture that has cleaved their lives: Thomas's health is failing, and Helene simply can't accept that she might lose him. And then Finster appears - young, louche, popping up everywhere Thomas and Helene happen to be, dogging Helene like a lovesick puppy. When a tragic mishap caused by their dance of three accidentally takes the life of a Vanduuan child, Helene, separated from both men, becomes a fugitive left to fend for herself on this troubled, surreal, inexplicably foreign speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
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Editorial Reviews

David Sacks
...[F]ast-paced and handsomely written....Ciment writes tight prose with carefully selected details, often quirky or comical....Helene's journey toward independence suggests a metaphor for a woman's passage toward middle age...the book broods on the inevitability of change.
The New York Times Book Review
Vince Passaro
An updated Conrad tale, full of moral ambiguity and horror...so brutally evokes the tin-roofed humidity and broken-down infrastructure of a third-rate tropical holiday, you practically sweat onto the pages.
Elle
Kirkus Reviews
There will always be innocents wandering about in the worst places abroad, and most of them will always be Americans, like the two described here by Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, 1993).

The Melanesian island of Vanduu is about as far off the map as you can fall. Dropped somewhere in between the Philippines and Indonesia, it's primitive, remote, and not exactly part of the tourist circuit. Blessed with beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, a mishmash of competing religions, and a pre-modern culture, it could offer a good holiday to a sybaritic anthropologist, however, and that probably explains why Thomas Strauss is there. A renowned American scholar of erotic rituals, Thomas visits Vanduu with his wife, Helene. Nearly 30 years his junior, Helene's an ex-stripper who became Thomas's guide to the sexual netherworlds he wrote about before marrying her. In Vanduu, they meet Adam Finster, an American expatriate who makes a living selling love potions-pheronome perfumes-to the locals. Adam tries to show Thomas and Helene the "real" Vanduu, but after he seduces the sexually starved Helene, she flees him and goes off with Thomas on their own. This proves to be a big mistake when Thomas kills a native boy in a car accident and later dies of a heart attack, leaving Helene to face the prospect of a manslaughter trial on her own. Unwilling to subject herself to the vagaries of Vanduuan justice, she turns fugitive and tries to flee the country secretly. To succeed, she needs the help of someone steeped in the local customs, and she knows no one in Vanduu but Adam. Can he be trusted to get her out of this mess?

Somewhat formulaic and too self-consciously rough ("He cupped her breastlike a man cups a handful of cherished water"). But a good read-told with real style in the best Graham Greene manner. .

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517702024
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/16/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 8.59 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Ciment is the author of Half a Life, The Law of Falling Bodies, and Small Claims. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Foundation for the Arts and teaches at Columbia University.
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Read an Excerpt

The Vatu Chalets were a half dozen plywood cabins scattered along a path through the jungle. As soon as they swung into the parking lot and Helene killed the engine, Finster tried to catch her eye. He thought if he could just get her to look at him, he'd be able to glean whether or not their kiss had the same lingering effect on her as it had on him, but Helene seemed to be looking at everything in the known universe except Finster--the A-frame stilt lobby, the swarms of gnats, the pregnant goat eating a Pringle box out of a garbage can, Thomas's hawklike profile in the last spokes of daylight. It hardly mattered; just being in her presence filled him with a heady surge of hope.
        
They started up the steep steps to the lobby. Finster noticed that Helene firmly took hold of Thomas's elbow. The gesture was protective, almost nurselike, and he could see it bothered Thomas. He was a step or two below them. From this angle, he could just make out a hint of Helene's upper thighs under the fringe of her cutoffs, and they were perfect. Once again, he couldn't imagine what she was doing with this old man.
        
When they opened the lobby doors, the teenage concierge was squatting on the floor, preparing a wad of betel. He managed to pop it into his mouth before Finster ordered him to the front desk and began berating him for not renting his friends a chalet. Actually, Finster liked the boy (they'd shared a joint earlier that afternoon), but he wanted to impress Helene with his worldly authority, his American can-do.
        
After theconcierge sullenly shuffled off to find some fresh linen, Finster suggested that Helene and Thomas go to their chalet, relax, and take a shower. He said he'd be back in an hour with a feast for all three of them. They didn't argue. They looked grateful. They were standing under the lobby's listless ceiling fan, and though Finster couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was something sad about them.

        Around eight he swung by Helene and Thomas's cabin. They were fully dressed, supine on the bed: Thomas was asleep, Helene was staring at the ceiling, and once again, Finster had the ill-defined sense that something was amiss in their relationship. Though Helene gently stirred Thomas awake, Finster intuited a frayed tension under her seemingly attentive veneer.
        
He loped beside her all the way to the gazebo.
        
"Quite a feast," Thomas said, peeling open the screen door.
        
In the center of the gazebo sat a low round table laden with food--slabs of fried Spam, corn beef hash, a plate of taro mash the consistency of rabbit glue, and a big bowl of Top Ramen noodles.
        
"I told the woman not to serve Spam," Finster said. "I told her not to serve tinned anything."
        
"It's fine Finster, really," Thomas said. "It looks delicious." He sat down on a throw of pillows, Helene sat down next to him, and Finster wedged himself in beside her.
        
"I'd stick with the noodle soup," Finster told Helene. He ladled out a bowl for her, carefully skimming off the amoeba-shaped globules of fat. Then he fixed one for Thomas and himself as well. "So, did you guys come to see the caves or the psychosurgeries?"
        
"The caves," Helene said.
        
Finster smiled. "They're awesome. They look like . . ." He could barely remember what they looked like: He hadn't been there in years. "They look like . . . like a movie set, only they're real." He couldn't believe how idiotic he sounded, more like the San Fernando Valley boy he once was than the Gauguin figure he hoped Helene perceived him to be: He knew he should stop smoking so much pot. "I'd love to show them to you," he said. "Unfortunately, I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I could take you there on Sunday."
        
"Thanks, Finster but I'm sure we can manage," Thomas said.
        
"Hey, Tom, trust me, you need a guide. You can't just wander around the caves by yourselves. They're filled with live shells. The caves were an ammo dump during the war. At least once every couple of years some Japanese honeymooners go up in a puff."

"Must put a damper on tourism."
        
"Actually, it gives the caves a romantic charge."
        
Thomas put down his soup. He'd barely touched it. "Do they still perform psychosurgeries?"
        
"To be honest, I've never seen one. But my customers swear by them."
        
"Customers for what?" Helene asked.
        
"For this." Finster dug into the pocket of his aloha shirt and pulled out a vial. He set it down gingerly on Helene's plate, as one might serve a dessert truffle. "Smell it."
        
"Am I going to get high or something?"
        
"Just smell it."
        
Helene glanced at Thomas, then uncapped the vial and waved it under her nose. "Oh my God, it's like . . . like essence of Woolworth." She closed her eyes and sniffed again. "I'm having a Proustian experience. I'm back in aisle six, between the Whitman samplers and the hair spray, and my whole childhood is unfolding before me. How did you bottle this? Why did you bottle it?"
        
"It's perfume," he said defensively. "With pheromones. It's a sexual attractant, like an aphrodisiac. I didn't come up with the scent, I just import the stuff. Among other things," he added.
        
"It has human pheromones in it?" Thomas asked.
        
"Actually, they're pig pheromones, but hey, it's a pig culture."
        
"And the locals believe it works?"
        
"Big time. And they really like the scent. They think of it as some kind of American love potion," he said, staring at Helene. But she wasn't listening. She seemed to have abruptly lost interest in the whole conversation, and he wondered why.
        
"How do they even know about it?" Thomas asked.
        
"I advertise in the local rags, and in Guns and Ammo. Guns and Ammo has a whopping circulation in these islands." He turned to Helene. "You can come with me tomorrow on my delivery rounds if you want. My customers are pretty interesting, and to say the least, it's off the beaten track."
        
Thomas shook his head and smiled. "So you're an entrepreneurial Malinowski of a sort."
        
"Malino-who?"
        
"Bronislaw Malinowski. He was an anthropologist who wrote a book about Melanesia called The Sexual Life of Savages."
        
"Like the title," Finster said, grinning. He helped himself to one of Thomas's cigarettes, lit it, then tried to catch Helene's eye again, but it was hopeless. "Actually, I see myself more in Conradian terms. A Kurtz without the horror, the horror hypocrisy."
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First Chapter

Chapter One

    Finster surveyed the long, volcanic stretch of beach and spotted the rinky-dink ferry boat. It chugged through the surf, spewing out diesel oil. When the sun hit the oil, casting arcs and squiggles of bright iridescent colors on the glassy swells, the drab, peeling ferry appeared to be floating atop another ferry, a bright fun ferry of the netherworld.

    Finster snuffed out his Thai stick, slipped on his flip-flops, and trotted across the black sand toward the wharf. Though tourists rarely entered the country by ferry these days, the hawkers had come out anyway — Chinese boys selling Seiko watches with Tinkertoy inner works and a big, sullen family of Indian shopkeepers who had recently fled Fiji. They'd managed to smuggle out the best of their inventory — hand-carved Fijian salad bowls the size of manhole covers.

    Finster arrived at the wharf just as the ferry slapped against the pilings and a throng of native passengers started funneling down the gangplank. The old men wore sarongs, but the young ones sported T-shirts that read Baywatch or It's Not Beer, Mate, This Is Just a Fat Shirt. The Muslim women glided out next, swaddled in flapping lengths of Hawaiian shirt material, followed by a trio of loud, hefty Palauans, a Chinese businessman, and a white couple. Squinting into the eye-frying sun, Finster scrutinized the couple. The old man was very gray and very tall and very concave. The young woman wore a tank top and no bra and her red hair, tossed and stiffened by twelve hours on the sloshing deck, had hardened into a seascape, like one of those Japanese serigraphs where the waves, all foam and power, are forever on the verge of crashing. In a slinky dress, she'd be a knockout, Finster thought. Or maybe he'd lost his connoisseur's eye after six years on this rock and any Occidental woman whose skin didn't turn firecracker red under the relentless sun looked smashing to him.

    Mopping the perspiration from his sparse blond mustache, Finster headed up the gangplank toward the ferry's cargo hold, then stopped for a moment to watch the couple — more precisely the woman's breasts — enter the gauntlet of enterprise set up entirely for their perusal. The boys yelled, "Best price, real deal," and dangled their watches in front of the couple's eyes. The Indians sat cross-legged and mute behind their colossal salad bowls. The woman didn't look left or right. Finster noticed that she carried more than her fair share of the luggage, and he wondered what their little drama was. Father and daughter? Husband and wife? Businessman and mistress? When the couple finally emerged from the makeshift bazaar, they were greeted by the village's only public transportation — a horse-drawn carriage and a trishaw. Despite the man emphatically telling the drivers no thanks, the drivers persevered. Finster secretly rooted for them. The boy with the carriage lashed his skeletal horse into rattled action, plodding along next to the couple, beckoning them to take a trot along the blazing beach. The old trishaw driver couldn't muster enough breath to pedal and speak at the same time. He just stared beseechingly at the couple's backs as he pumped laboriously in their wake. Finster knew the drivers had only thirty more yards to seal the deal before the couple reached the only possible destination — Motel Paradise, a queue of cinder-block bungalows with a thrumming generator and a hand-painted sign promising AIR CON.

    "Mistah Finstah, what to do with the boxes, sah?"

    Finster turned around just in time to see his shipment — half a dozen cardboard crates — flung out of the cargo hold and onto the puddled dock.

    "Are you morons crazy?" he said, bending over to sniff for any breakage. Last month one of the boys had dropped a box on the pier and the smell had lingered for days. With all the other pungent odors around, you couldn't exactly distinguish any particular one, but still, walking along the wharf at night, when the sun wasn't out to cook up the rotting fish heads, Finster could swear he smelled his magic elixir and was filled with such profound longing, he almost believed the stuff worked.

    Peeling back a cardboard flap, he could see the little vials shaken but unharmed in their cardboard cells.

    "Stack them next to my warehouse. And be careful, for Christ's sake, or me tingktingk you not getting paid."

    Then Finster slipped beneath the wharf, took another toke, and walked to the edge of the road to try to catch one last glimpse of the woman. The sun was flaring on the horizon, turning the corrugated tin village into glaring cubes on stilts of fire. Black clouds piled up overhead. Squinting into the frittering light, Finster could barely even see the motel, let alone any people around it. When he heard his boys laughing on the far end of the beach, he hurried toward his warehouse to make sure they weren't filching a vial or two.

    The boys squatted beside the boxes, their cheeks ballooned with betel nut, their teeth stained the color of maraschino cherries. They were recent arrivals from a mountain kampung and wore the island equivalent of nouveau riche haute couture — baseball caps advertising products they'd never heard of, let alone could afford, and knockoff brand sneakers worn with the backs crushed flat and the laces flapping. One boy sprawled on the sand, lewdly pumping his hips while pretending to caress a penis as long and stiff as a baseball bat. When the others saw Finster, they leapt up and stood at mock attention.

    "Sah, the boxes unloaded, sah," said the leader, a wild-haired boy of sixteen.

    Finster took out his wallet. "Don't blow it all in one night," he said.

    He paid them one American dollar apiece and a vial between them. The vials were worth more than money — the boys believed it gave them sexual power. Outside of their villages and the distant capital, the female pickings were slim. The Hindu and Muslim girls were all married off before puberty, the Chinese stuck to their own kind, and the natives who came down to the coast were snatched up by the missionaries. By thirteen, they wore hulking Mother Hubbards and carried around Bibles the size of cinder blocks.

    After the boys left, Finster unlocked his warehouse, a tin Quonset hut at the hem of the jungle guarded by two squat, wrinkly-faced dogs. The dogs were sisters, most likely a mix of pye-dog and Chinese shar-pei, who seemed to resemble (particularly when Finster was high) W. H. Auden. He'd found them as pups, paid them in bones, and loved them to the point where he thought he was losing his mind. Dragging his boxes into the stifling hot hut, he stopped for a second to hold out his hands and let his girls kiss him like supplicants.

    The warehouse had no electricity, so Finster worked by flashlight. He opened his boxes and started taking inventory. Between the heavy panting of the dogs and the insufferable heat, he felt as if he was working inside an engine.

    The bulk of his stock was shipped from the Philippines. Finster had never met his counterpart in Manila, but he had a fair idea of the man's predilections. Each vial came wrapped in a wad of newsprint torn from Manila's raciest tabloids — blurred photos of bullet-riddled corpses, scantily clad "hostitutes," a Filipina maid stabbed to death by her Singaporean employer. Mostly, the articles were in Tagalog, but a few were in English, and in this piecemeal fashion, Finster got his news of the outside world. Pirates attack a city in Borneo. Aquino threatens to cancel U.S. military base leases. Muslim insurgents start a holy war in Mindanao. Catholics are rioting on Flores because a Protestant refused to eat the body of Christ.

    Tilting his head back against the tin wall, Finster dug out his roach and took another blast to blot out the news. Then he shut off the flashlight. The Quonset hut was a relic from World War II. Fifty-year-old bullet holes pocked the ceiling. When the moon was full, as it was tonight, light poured in like water through a colander. Unable to sit still for another second, Finster got up and herded his dogs outside. He liked them to prowl the beach at night to keep a blood-shot eye on things. With his Swiss army knife, he opened two cans of imported Alpo and emptied the horse meat into their bowls. While his girls ate noisily, a sound he found weirdly moving, he locked the warehouse and headed toward the motel. He just wanted to take a gander at what was going on, see if the woman was around.

    The village, a pandemonium of tin shacks flanking ten dirt lanes, had already shut down. Even the chickens had disappeared. Finster walked along the beach, past the fishermen's huts, to the only paved road. It was paved with crushed coral and he had to stop now and again to dig an iridescent pink shard out of his rubber flip-flops. The motel stood in a grove of palms. Finster knew the Indian hotelier would have put the white couple up in his deluxe suite, the only room with a glass window, running water, and a toaster-size cooler. He crept around back, careful not to make a sound — not that anyone would hear him over the thrumming insects and knocking palms.

    An oil drum stood under the couple's window. For a moment, Finster thought he saw it tilt. Inching closer, he did see it tilt. The missionary boy was perched on the barrel's rim, taking surreptitious peeks through the glass. Finster knew he was spying on the woman. He loathed the boy, but since he was the only other American around, they'd formed one of those uneasy alliances based entirely on homesickness. The boy had been sent here six months ago by the Seventh-Day Adventists to convert any native who hadn't already been commandeered by the Mormons. But no one listened to the kid, let alone attended his weekly preach-o-thons. The Hindus laughed behind his back. The Muslims thought him mad. As far as Finster could tell, the entire doctrine of his church consisted of standing on a mountaintop and waiting for the world to end. Only when Finster was high, which was pretty much always these days, did he feel a fleeting sympathy for the boy. He'd call him Mr. Millennium and he'd let the kid show him his church's brochure — a coloring book Eden where lions lie down with lambs and every Melanesian looks like a young Harry Bellafonte or a smashing Lena Horne. With the right combination of pot, whiskey, and self-pity, Finster saw in those illustrations the world he thought he'd set sail for six years ago.

    He picked up two coconuts and whacked them together. The loud clops, sounding like a bush pig stamping through the grove, sent the kid fleeing into the village. Finster hung back for a minute or two, then hoisted himself onto the barrel and took the kid's place. Through the pitted glass, he could see two shapes sleeping in separate beds. But that implied nothing. No one could sleep side by side in this heat. The man and the woman were naked. Under the mosquito net, details of the woman's body were blurry, but Finster could make out what he craved. She slept on her side, her legs folded, her cheek crushed against her shoulder. She didn't shave under her arms and Finster saw a cloud of red hair framed by the ghost of a bikini strap. Only one breast was visible. Finster had once read an article in a women's magazine that compared breast sizes and shapes to drinking glasses: the beer mug, the brandy snifter, the martini glass, and the ultimate size and shape — a wide-mouthed champagne glass. This was definitely a champagne glass.

    Mashing his cheek to the window, Finster memorized the breast. Then, cupping the image in his addled mind, as carefully as a man might cup a handful of cherished water, he climbed off the barrel and walked to the beach. With a bamboo stick, he drew an outline of the woman in the sand, then lay down atop it. Without losing hold of the breast, he groped through his pocket for his roach and lit up. With every exhalation, he watched the smoke fly out of his mouth in the shape of his soul. When the roach finally dwindled to ash, the memory of the breast flitted away and a jolt of dire loneliness overtook him. He rolled onto his stomach and pressed his cheek against the warm sand. He could hear the land crabs' claws clicking like castanets and something lugubrious moving through the jungle. Sleep clotted his eyes. Then, on the brink of hallucinatory dreams, they came to him — the lions and lambs of Eden. The lions padded around him, the lambs nudged him with their cold noses. In a frenzy of love, they licked his eyes, ears, cheek, neck. He expected their breath to smell awful, but it smelled weirdly familiar — a waft of canned horse meat and something like a fever.

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